Does a historic area have to be placed on the national register first, before we can have design review and design guidelines?

No. The National Register is a federally administered list of sites and districts of historic significance and it does not regulate buildings at the local level. A local historic district designation is needed in order to establish the boundary within which enforced design review will apply.

Do we have to establish a local historic district before we can develop design guidelines?

No. In most cases, guidelines are applied to a historic district that the community has defined as worthy of protection. Sometimes, however, there may be areas of town that contain buildings which contribute to the visual character of the community but are not so "historic" or do not occur in enough numbers to really justify a historic district. In many cases, these areas are good prospects for neighborhood conservation or rehabilitation projects, where design guidelines are also appropriate to assure that the basic character of the buildings and the neighborhood is not destroyed.

Do we have to have a local design review ordinance in order to use design guidelines?

No. Although most towns that want to promote good design in historic areas do adopt ordinances that establish review powers for design, this is not the only way. Communities that do not feel quite ready to adopt such laws may take a less comprehensive approach:

  • They may be guidelines for voluntary use. These are used as an educational tool, and a special group, sometimes the local historical society or Chamber of Commerce, promotes the use of the guidelines.
  • They may be applied where special government incentives are offered for renovation or development assistance. In these cases, such as when low-interest loans are made available in rehab project areas, the developer voluntarily submits his design for review in order to receive the special benefits.
  • They may be applied to public works only. In some communities, the town will enact design standards for all public buildings, parks, and street furniture. Although this is less comprehensive than an overall design review ordinance, it can help to make the process a familiar one to local residents.
  • Sometimes guidelines are developed for signs only, and attached to a sign code.

Isn't there a good set of guidelines we could copy?

There are good examples of design guidelines that towns have developed for their own historical districts but physical and political conditions vary from town to town, so what is suitable for one community may not apply in another. It is a good idea to review guidelines from other towns to see how particular design issues have been handled. But, if your guidelines are to be as effective as possible, they should be developed for the local setting.

Won't design guidelines stifle creativity in design?

In reality, design guidelines act more as a filter, screening out designs that are obviously inappropriate for a defined historic district. When written appropriately, they focus on protecting the essential visual characteristics of an area and they will not restrict creativity.

This approach to design guidelines, which encourages contemporary design, should actually broaden the range of design options that many boards will consider appropriate.

Also remember that this approach was developed for older areas of a community with buildings of historic interest. Outside of these areas may be the appropriate setting for unconventional designs.

Why aren't copies of historic architectural styles compatible with historic architecture?

From a visual standpoint, one can argue that designs based on historic styles are compatible, because they certainly will have elements that are similar to those that already exist on the street. However, from the standpoint of historic interpretation, they are inappropriate because they confuse us about the history of the life of the community. In addition, since the new versions of historic structures are often technically inaccurate, they cause confusion with the original buildings about what building styles were like in the past.

Who should initiate the development of design guidelines?

Anyone can. Town governments often do, but equally often a local historic preservation group will start the process. It is a good idea, of course, to coordinate efforts, so that work is not duplicated.

Do we have the legal right to tell people what to do with privately owned buildings?

The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of design review. Proper procedures are important, however, to assure due process. There are other materials enclosed in the packet that address procedures for review boards.

Will design review increase development costs?

Compatible design need not cost any more than a design that is inappropriate for an historic area. Even design costs should not increase if the attitudes of the review board are understood by the designer at the beginning of his work, and therefore, it is important to have guidelines that are printed and available ahead of time.

Also remember that one of the purposes of establishing an area with design review is to protect the property values of everyone in the area, a higher level of cost consideration that is usually considered to be most important. Finally, review boards are charged with evaluating the appropriateness of design. It is too much to expect them to also make judgements about cost. Most review processes make provision for the applicant to appeal to a separate public body when special economic hardships apply.